340 NJM Laura Montenegro RWJBH Runners Spotlight Family 031517

Editor’s Note: Laura Montenegro is a social worker for RWJBarnabas Health, generous sponsor of the 2017 Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon & Half Marathon Saturday Kids and Family Festival and 5K. RWJBarnabas Health is fielding more than 100 runners in the marathon, half marathon, and half marathon relay. Laura offered to share her story as part of our New Jersey Marathon “Runner’s Spotlight,” a focus on the training, trials, and triumphs of New Jersey Marathon participants. Look for more features in the coming weeks.

Here is Laura’s story:

“I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, when smoking was ‘cool’ and everyone did it. Although my parents were avid non-smokers, both my brother and I, being rather rebellious, began to smoke at a young age. No one ever means to become addicted to cigarettes and we laughed at the warnings, thinking, ‘It won’t happen to me.’

“When I went to college, I continued to smoke and also fell into the poor eating habits of the collegiate force of the time. Late-night parties and trips to the diner packed on the pounds for me. By the time I was 20, I was carrying 170 lbs on my small frame. I was miserable and I knew I needed a change.

“I began to exercise, lifting weights, and walking regularly early in the morning while also changing my diet. Becoming employed and living a schedule that was conducive to healthy habits, this was easy. At the age of 24, I was back down to a healthy weight of 120 lbs and was looking good. However, I could not stop smoking. I didn’t even want to.

“I ran my first 5K in 1997. It was the Corporate Challenge in Morristown, NJ. When I followed the crowds over a hill and saw this sea of runners in front of me, I was hooked. The running community was friendly, supportive, welcoming, and hilarious. Runners will talk about any topic in the world and don’t shy away from bodily functions. They taught me how to laugh at myself and not take things so seriously; except for the fact that I could not stop smoking. They were very serious about my kicking this habit.

“I continued to run and smoke for years. Several attempts were made at quitting. I was able to stay away from them through pregnancies, two of them, but always picked them back up again, thinking that I’d just have one or two. Soon, I’d be smoking a half pack or more every day. I would hide behind my house, like a junkie, smoking cigarettes, because I didn’t want anyone to know.

“I’d constantly wash my hands and swish around mouthwash to reduce the smell, even though we all know you never actually get rid of that smell. I tried the patch, gum, Nicotine Anonymous, and I always went back. I would get bronchitis every year at least once, and suffered pneumonia three times. By 2007, I had a chronic cough that was embarrassing and disgusting.

“In December of 2007, a good friend of mine called me and said, ‘I’m running the More Half Marathon in Central Park in April. Come and run it with me.’ That day, I decided that I would put the cigarettes down on the first Monday after New Year’s, because I never quit anything on New Year’s Day. It’s bad luck.

“On January 6, 2008, at 9:00 p.m., I smoked my last cigarette. The next morning, I woke up and ran the first two miles of my half marathon training program. Within a couple of days, I felt a marked difference in my lung capacity. I felt better. I felt strong!

“In April of 2008, I ran my very first half marathon. That November, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon; the entire 26.2, and I have never looked back. Since then, I have completed the New Jersey Marathon once and the New York City marathon three times. I have run countless half marathons, 10Ks, 15Ks, 5ks and I won’t stop.

“I rise at 4:30 a.m. every workday morning to run with my two dogs, Otis and Gertie. On the weekend, I run long runs and maintain an average weekly mileage of 25-30 miles. Running has saved my life. This past Jan. 6, I celebrated nine years of being smoke- free!

“I will be running the New Jersey Half Marathon this April for the third time. I wanted to sign up for the full marathon, but with a nagging injury, I feel it is best not to push myself too hard. I want to be able to run until the day my soul leaves this earth. If I can inspire one person to quit smoking, stop eating that bad food or give up any other habit that keeps them from feeling and being their very best, I would be thrilled.”

Learn more about RWJBarnabas Health.

Read John Ryan’s Runner’s Spotlight.